Lestander wins first Olympic biathlon gold
Combining cross country skiing and target shooting, military patrol featured on the official programme at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924 before making a reappearance as a demonstration sport at Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 and St Moritz 1948.
In the years that followed the Second World War, the modern version of military patrol, known as biathlon, grew in popularity, with a set of rules and regulations being drawn up in Macolin (SUI) in the mid 1950s and the sport coming under the jurisdiction of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne (UIPM).
The first biathlon world championship contest was held over a distance of 20 kilometres in Saalfelden (AUT) in 1958, with victory going to Adolf Wiklund of Sweden. In Courmayeur (ITA) the following year, the world title was won by Vladimir Melanin of the USSR.
In the meantime, the 20km men’s biathlon earned a place on the Olympic programme at Squaw Valley 1960, with 30 competitors representing nine countries taking to the start line at McKinney Creek Stadium on 21 February 1960.
The race involved four shooting rounds, each comprising five shots, and taking place over four different ranges: 200m, 250m, 150m and 100m. Setting off at one-minute intervals, competitors were required to fire the first three rounds from a prone position and the last standing, with each miss of the target incurring a two-minute penalty to be added to their final times.
Hailing from Arjeplog in the far north of Sweden, Klas Lestander chose to miss the 1959 World Championships to focus on his preparations for the sport’s Olympic debut the following year. The Swede, a skilled shooter and huntsman, had his eye in when the big day came and was one of only three athletes to shoot clear in the first three rounds, the other two being the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Privalov and Norway’s Henry Hermansen.
The Norwegian’s gold medal chances evaporated when he missed four targets in the final standing round, while Privalov could only manage two hits out of five. In contrast, Lestander went clear again, and though only 15th-fastest on the skis, he comfortably secured biathlon’s first ever Olympic gold with a time of 1:31:21.6, having also become the biathlete to shoot a perfect 20 out of 20 in an international competition.
Silver went to Finland’s Anti Tyrväinen. He was only the competition’s the tenth-fastest participant but overcame a four-minute penalty incurred earlier to produce a fault-free final session at the range. Meanwhile, Privalov’s three misses in the standing round relegated him to third place.
The two-minute penalty would be reduced to one later that decade, and while the time penalty remains in force in the individual 20km race, in all other biathlon events competitors are required to complete a penalty lap when missing a target.
Though Lestander retired just a year after becoming Olympic biathlon’s very first champion, his sport continued to develop and grow significantly in the decades that followed.
Women’s biathlon was included on the Olympic programme at Albertville 1992, and sport’s governing body, the International Biathlon Union (IBU), was founded the following year. By Sochi 2014, there were no fewer than 11 biathlon events on the programme: the individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start and relay events for both men and women and the mixed relay.